By Arthur G. Gish
(an excerpt from his book: Muslim, Christian, Jew: The Oneness of God and the Unity of our Faith…A Personal Journey in the Three Abrahamic Religions. -Cascade Books-)
The value of interfaith dialogue is severely limited if it mainly involves academics discussing abstract issues unconnected with struggles for social justice. An exciting further step is to stand in solidarity with people of other religions in the struggle for social justice. Interfaith cooperation must include standing in solidarity with the oppressed, together resisting oppression,asking each other for forgiveness, and embodying in our relationships the seeds of the new social order for which we pray. It is important that rich Christians, Muslims, and Jews, with all their financial, political, technological and military power, not become an alliance of the powerful over against the powerless, thus negating the heart of the three religions rooted in the Biblical and Qur’anic calls for justice based on the oneness of God. Sadly, many Abrahamic people already have made alliances with injustice.
I remember the mass meetings during the Civil Rights Movement, when black and white, young and old, rich and poor, men and women, plus people of many religious persuasions came together in an incredible sense of unity. Our singing and praying was connected to facing the police dogs, the tear gas, the serious repression, and the knowledge that our lives were literally on the line. Faith became real. We turned to God as we learned to walk the talk.
It has been an inspiration and blessing to Peggy and me that whenever we take stands for justice, we can count on support from people not only in all three Abrahamic religions, but from people of many religions and perspectives. Literally thousands of people from many religions pray for us in our work.
There is a “peace process” that takes place in fancy resorts like WyeRiver, Sharm al Sheik, or at the United Nations, but there is another peace process that happens around demolished homes, in shepherds’ caves, in people’s living rooms, in demonstrations and vigils on the street.
The real peace process happens when common people share their pain with each other and join together in resisting oppression and struggle for a better world. Much more exciting than academic discussions is for Jews and Christians to stand with Muslims when Muslims are under threat from Christians and Jews, or when Muslims and Christians reach out and support Jews when Jews are in danger. The most exciting dialogue happens not in academic conferences, but in the struggle for social justice, in together working to undo oppression. In many cases, these actions will not be popular.
During the massacre of 67 Jews in Hebron in 1929, many Palestinian Muslim families hid Jews in their homes and saved the lives of many Jews. I know many of these Muslim families and even though they now are suffering abuse from Israeli settlers, these Muslims continue to be proud of their families for the risks they took for Jews.
During WWII, both Protestants and Catholics in the French village of Le Chambon saved the lives of 5,000 Jews from extermination by the Nazis. Farid Esack tells the story of a powerful interfaith experience in South Africa in 1984 when 19 religious leaders from various backgrounds were arrested and jailed together. They experienced in the jail cells their common need for God and their common commitment to justice. As Esack tells it, “In eight hours, years of suspicion and mistrust were shattered.” In the three days following his inauguration as President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela visited a mosque, a synagogue, and a church as a symbol of his commitment to freedom for all. He appointed Muslims and Jews to important positions in his administration.
During the time in 1994 when Christians in Rwanda were slaughtering three quarters of a million of their fellow Christians, many Muslims intervened to save their Christian neighbors. By 2002, the Muslim population in Rwanda had doubled or tripled due to a large extent to the Muslim support of their Christian neighbors during the genocide.
In December 2008, I met a Jewish couple in Bethlehem. They were working in solidarity with Palestinians. They had just returned from being part of a peace delegation to Iran where they had identified themselves as Jews. The man wore his kippah in Iran. The Iranian people warmly welcomed them as Jews. There are 20,000 Jews living in Iran.
It is exciting to join hands across the boundaries of race, clan, and religion in the struggle for social justice. It is in this crossing of boundaries that we are stretched and forced to grow. Seeking unity on moral, social concerns should be seen as just as important as unity on doctrine and worship. Issues of violence and war, economic justice, racism, and sexism can be significant starting points for seeking unity across divisions of religion, race, gender, or class.
When our CPT team learned in February 1997 that the Israeli military had placed demolition orders on 700 Palestinian homes in the Hebron area, we felt led to do a public fast for 700 hours (27 days). Each day we sat in a tent in downtown Hebron and were joined by Muslims and Jews, which resulted in intense dialogue between many factions in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Each day we had our Christian time of worship in the tent, which was open to everyone.The tent became a forum for people to share their pain, to tell their stories, and to talk with people on the opposite side of issues from them. Muslims, Christians, and Jews came together in a deep way. Lives were changed and people made new commitments to work for peace. Abraham, Hagar, and Sarah, would have been happy if they could have seen their children coming together.
In December 1999, I was living with a Palestinian Muslim family whose home was regularly being attacked by Israeli settlers. The settlers were demanding that the Israeli military demolish the house and they then would start a new settlement there. The settlers also were threatening to demolish the house themselves. The situation was serious. Our team sent out an urgent action alert, asking people around the world to send messages to the Israeli and U.S. government asking that this home not be demolished. Members of one Mennonite congregation in Indiana sent at least 75 faxes to the Israeli government in support of this Muslim family. In situations like this, there is great potential for evil, but even greater possibilities for good. This Muslim family welcomed Jews to come and be a presence with them. Four Jews (two Israelis, one Canadian, and one American) came to stay with the family. Groups of Israelis came during the daytime. As a result of this action, the Israeli government promised that the home would not be demolished and clamped down on settler attacks against the family.
On February 11, 2000, there was a demonstration near Hebron to protest Israeli confiscation of Palestinian land. The action was based on Jesus’ teaching that if someone who has power over you asks you to do something you should not have to do, sometimes as a form of resistance, you can do more than you were ordered to do to shame that person, like walking an extra mile. Or if someone wants to take your cloak, give him your underwear as well to shame him with your nakedness. Based on this idea, we came up with the idea of taking buckets of soil to an expanding Israeli settlement, telling the settlers that if they want more land, here, we would give them more land.
On that Friday morning, Jews, Muslims, and Christians marched to the Harsina settlement east of Hebron. Each person poured out their bucket of soil and made a short statement about the horror of stealing people’s land. The message was, “Here, you are so greedy that you take the land of these simple farmers, here, we will give you more. Rabbi Arik Ascherman referred to the Biblical story in First Kings 21 of Naboth’s vineyard when King Ahab stole the garden of Naboth, simply because the king wanted more.
In publicizing this action, I went door to door in Muslim neighborhoods with leaflets explicitly referring to Jesus’ words, inviting people to this Christian planned action, and was warmly welcomed everywhere I went. In a common struggle for justice, when we make ourselves vulnerable to each other, we can authentically be who we are. We were not preaching abstract religious dogma, but were drawn together by our common struggle for justice.
On January 9, 2004, a delegation of seven American Jews came to the West Bank for a solidarity visit with Palestinians. I was their guide for the two days they spent in Hebron. They wanted to be identified as Jews so that they could communicate to the Palestinians that some Jews care about their oppression. I took them to visit various Muslim families who were delighted to have Jews in their homes. We visited one family who has suffered deeply from Jewish settlers in Hebron, even though that family had hidden and saved the lives of Jews in Hebron during the massacre in 1929. We visited families who had their land confiscated, families who had repeatedly been attacked by settlers, and families who had had their homes demolished. The group spent the night in Muslim homes. These Jews expressed their sorrow and embarrassment for what fellow Jews were doing to Palestinians.
How profound! What is of more significance than to reach out to one’s “enemy,” to build bridges instead of walls, for “enemies” to eat together, sleep in each other’s homes, and share their stories? The Palestinians were deeply grateful and honored that these Jews would come to visit them. The Jews were touched by the welcome, the hospitality, and love they received from Palestinian Muslims. The Jews told me how amazed they were that they could not detect any hatred in the hearts of their hosts.
On January 20, 2004, a group of Americans went to observe Israelis building a fence behind a row of Palestinian homes, cutting those Palestinians off from their land on the other side of the fence, land that Israeli settlers were confiscating for the Harsina settlement, near Hebron. We decided to walk down the new road on the settler side of the fence and talk with a group of about 30 Israeli high school boys who were building the fence, accompanied by armed security guards. They were quite friendly as we approached them. Apparently they took us for Jews. After all, we were on the Jewish side of the fence. One of our group was Jewish. We introduced ourselves, began chatting, and taking pictures of each other. They asked about who we were. It wasn’t long before the settler guards realized who we were and ordered us to go to the Palestinian side of the fence and leave the area. About eight soldiers arrived to enforce the settler order. The students seemed stunned. Suddenly, the people who they thought to be their
friends were now identified as their enemies. Suddenly we became Palestinians. Now we were to be shunned and feared. We were no longer to be seen as sharing a common humanity. Now we had to be separated by a fence. We could no longer be friends or even talk with each other. We wondered what impressions that left with those teenagers. Were they able to make the quick perceptual transition? After connecting with us in such a positive way, were they able to suddenly see us as enemies? Did this experience have any effect on their perceptions of the fence dividing us?
There is something inhuman and unnatural about fences and walls that separate people. On December 25, 2003, the Israeli military put up a high fence on the street outside our team apartment in Hebron, to separate the settlers and the Palestinians, one small part of the larger Apartheid Separation Wall the Israeli government is building. Six weeks later, on February 4, 2004, I heard a noise in the street and discovered a settler man and about five boys on the Israeli side of the fence and one of the local chicken merchants on the Palestinian side, haggling over two pigeons the settler wanted to buy. I noticed them passing the pigeons through a hole in the fence. The wall was breeched that day. It could not keep the Jewish settlers and the Muslim merchant apart. A week later, the chicken merchant stopped me on the street and told me one of his chickens had gotten through the fence and was on the other side of the Jewish only street. He wanted me to crawl through a hole under the fence and retrieve his chicken. That sounded scary to me, but I decided I needed to do that for him. With some difficulty, I caught the chicken, was
not seen by settlers, and crawled back under the fence. The wall was breeched again.